Does the NHL even know what it’s doing?

Earlier this month London School of Economics blog ran a post by Asit Biswas and Julian Kircherr about the disconnect in information between academia and general public, including policy makers. The problem is two-fold: On one hand, the way a scholar’s merits are measured purely by the amount of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and on the other, how people outside of academia aren’t accessing the information.

Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioner’s decision-making. However, it is widely acknowledged practitioners rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policy-maker, or senior business leader who ever reads any peer-reviewed papers, even in recognized journals like Nature, Science or The Lancet.

And they continue:

First of all, most journals are prohibitively expensive to access for anyone outside of academia. Even if the current open-access-movement becomes more successful, the incomprehensible jargon and the sheer volume and lengths of papers (mostly unnecessary!) would still prevent practitioners (including journalists) from reading them.

But, hope endures. Those in academia are, albeit slowly, taking to writing op-eds and blogs to provide the rest of the world easier access to the discussion. Is the rest of the world meeting them half-way?

Now, I don’t know if anyone in the National Hockey League is reading academic journals. I don’t know if publications such as Journal of Sports Economics has ever crossed the desk of anyone in the league. Maybe so. But from what I can tell, they certainly didn’t read the article “The “Second” Season: The Effects of Playoff Tournaments on Competitive Balance Outcomes in the NHL and NBA” by Neil Longley and Nelson J. Lacey (JSE, Volume 13, Number 5, October 2012).

Or if they did, they did not understand it.

Longley and Lacey studied the extent playoffs rearrange the regular season standings and find the “the natural reconfiguring effect of playoffs can be further enhanced by the choice of playoff structure employed by a league” (p.473). Tournaments, such as the playoffs in a league, can be thought to have objectives such as “delayed confrontation” and “sincerity rewarded”. Delayed confrontation simply means that the tops seeds meet as late in the tournament as possible, and sincerity rewarded is the way top seeds are given more favorable first-round match-ups.

In the article Longley and Lacey compare the fulfillment of these objectives under different tournament structures. The 16 teams making the playoffs are all given a quality measure Q usually measured by total points, such that the best team is of quality Q1, the second best Q2, and so on to Q16. Depending on the tournament structure, the teams are seeded, so that the team in first place is seed 1 (S1), the second-place team S2, and so on to S16.

League Pooling, or the “stationary” playoffs

The simplest case is that of league-wide pooling, the system used for example in Finnish hockey. The teams are all ranked together as one group, and Q1 is seeded as S1, Q2 as S2 and so on. The playoff match-ups are then assigned so that S1 plays S16, S2 plays S15 and so on.

Under league pooling, then, the best team in the league always faces the 16th best team, the second-best the second-poorest etc. This system “provides the maximum reward for the best teams” (sincerity rewarded) and has the “greatest likelihood of preserving the regular season ordering”. The likelihood of upsets is the lowest under league pooling.

Conference pooling

In conference pooling the teams are divided to two conferences (A and B), and 8 teams from both conferences make it to the playoffs. Teams are seeded within conference, so that the highest seeded team in conference A (S1a) plays S8a, S1b plays S8b, S2a plays S7a, and so on.

Now teams opponent depends on the quality of the team (Q, determining how high the team is seeded) but also on the quality of the other teams in the conference. Assuming random assignment to conferences, 12,870 different combinations of teams in two conferences exist.

Notably, random assignment does not mean teams teams are drawn out of a hat with “Okay, and Minnesota will be playing in the Eastern Conference this year”. It simply means that the allocation of teams to conferences does not depend on their quality. So in effect the team qualities are assigned at random.

For example, let’s say the playoff teams in conference A are Q1, Q2, Q3, Q6, Q9, Q10, Q12, and Q13. So conference B has Q4, Q5, Q7, Q8, Q11, Q14, Q15, and Q16. The conferences look, at a glance, relatively even, as both conferences have good and poorer teams in the mix. Yet, as the playoffs are played within conference, each team in A has a less favorable matchup than they would have under league pooling! Q1 plays Q13 instead of Q14, Q2 plays Q12 instead of Q13, and so on.

Longley and Lacey took the 12,870 different conference allocations and calculated the probabilities of each potential matchup under conference pooling. For example, whereas Q1 faced Q16 for sure (100% probability) under league pooling, now the probability for that is only 46.7%. There is even a very small but positive probability Q1 faces Q8 in the first round (if all Top 8 teams are in the same conference).

When the expected matchups are calculated, “Q1 to Q8 all fare worse under a conference-pooling system” and all 8 lowest quality teams  gain. Conference pooling, then, “should increase the likelihood of first round “upsets””, thus “having a good regular-season is less rewarded under a conference-pooling system”. (p. 484)

Divisional pooling

What if conferences are broken down even further? The NHL did this for 82-93 period. Four divisions, with Top4 in each advancing to intradivisional first round, with S1 playing S4, S2 playing S3 in each division.

Assuming random allocation of teams/quality, as above, there are 1,820 different combinations of teams for each division. Again, Longley and Lacey calculated the probabilities of each matchup occurring. Now the odds of Q1 facing Q16 is 0.200. (Remember, it was 100% under league pooling, and 0.467 under conference pooling.) And while highly unlikely, it is possible (0.2%) Q1 could be facing Q4!

The expected matchup for Q1 goes from Q16 under league pooling to Q15 under conference pooling to Q13 under divisional pooling. Overall, the divisional pooling compresses even further the first-round matchups, benefiting the lowest quality teams.

Modified conference pooling

This is the system used in the NHL (94-98) and NBA (84-04). Two conferences, both with two divisions. Top 8 in each conference are seeded just like under conference pooling, except that the first-place teams in the two divisions are automatically seeded S1 and S2 in the conference.

This means, that in extreme cases, as Longley and Lacey point out, Q15 could end up S2 in its conference. (If Top 6 in conference are all in same division, so Q15 wins its division.) This would mean that Q15 would face Q14 in the first round.

The expected playoff matchups are slightly more complicated to calculate, so I won’t go through it. But suffice it to say that while the modification has no effect on Q1 or Q16, it does impact other teams, in general favoring the poorer teams. This is because it provided them with a possibility to “jump up” in the seeding, like Q15 in above example.

So how did it go, really?

Longley and Lacey looked at the different systems as they have been used in NHL and NBA, and found the results conform very closely to the predicted outcomes. Under divisional pooling the correlation was +0.86 with the NHL data. Modified conference pooling had correlations of +0.95 for NHL and +0.99 for NBA.

Few points from the actual data that are interesting:

  • under divisional pooling, Q1’s average opponent was 12.75. The predicted expected opponent was Q13. Both are well above the Q16 of league pooling.
  • also under divisional pooling, Q16’s opponent was, on average, 5.75. (Under league pooling Q1). Q10, on the other hand had the 4th favorable matchup in the league (10.17), which is better than those of Q4, Q5, Q6, Q7, Q8 or Q9! And Q14 faced a more favorable opponent than Q6, Q7 and Q8 above it.
  • under divisional pooling, both matchups Q2 vs Q3, and Q14 vs Q15 occured.
  • under modified conference pooling, Q12 vs Q13 happened in both leagues.
  • in the NBA, under modified conference pooling, and over 21 years, the average first round matchup for Q9 was more favorable than for Q6, Q7 and Q8.

But it evens out in the end, right?

Yes, it does, a little. And that’s only if you make it through the first round. Longley and Lacey calculated the cumulative probabilities of Q1 advancing through different rounds in the playoffs under different pooling systems.

Probability of Q1 winning 2 rounds under divisional pooling is 0.4046, whereas under league pooling it is 0.4775. That is, the highest quality team is 15.27% less likely to win two rounds in the playoffs under divisional pooling than under league pooling!

Three rounds of wins have probabilities of 0.2346 under divisional pooling and 0.2760 under league pooling. And the probabilities of Q1 winning the championship are 0.1284 under divisional pooling and 0.1460 under league pooling. That means that under divisional pooling the Q1 is 12.05% less likely to win the championship than under league pooling!

The difference does even out somewhat, because as the team advances it is now facing the poorer teams that made it through to further rounds. But it doesn’t completely disappear. In conclusion, then, Longley and Lacey state, that “different playoff tournament structures will provide different levels of advantage to the best teams”. And the further we brake the pooling, the more it favors the poorer teams.

So should we have league pooling?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of valid arguments in favor of smaller pooling, such as

  • profit maximization: it makes sense, purely in terms of logistics, to have more geographically focused matchups. Travel costs, both monetary and otherwise, are an issue. There are also potentially more fan interest in regional matchups (local rivalry in a factor in fan interest) so ticket sales cold factor in here. Also in terms of visiting team fans, as far-away fans are less likely to show up.
  • fan interest in upsets: people seem to like “Cinderella stories” and cheering for the underdog. Which, some could argue, is the whole point of playoffs.
  • income compensation: in so far as regular season wins/standings are influenced by payroll the playoffs offer an opportunity to poorer (literally) teams to make up for weaker regular season performance. Thus it would positively influence competitive balance. Of course, under salary caps, this isn’t such a concern anymore.

But, as Longley and Lacey conclude, “less-than-stationary playoff systems can be quite ingenious in that they appear quite legitimate and fair … but at the same time these systems are actually providing a disproportionate benefit to the lower quality teams” (p. 490) Doing so, they diminish the meaningfulness of the regular season, creating incentive issues which are potentially reflected in fan interest.

Really, NHL? The divisional bracket system?

The NHL completely redid their playoff tournament structure for this season, coming up with essentially modified within-division bracket system. Which I guess I almost get, as the bracket is so very pretty, and easy to promote and sell to the fans. The whole “predict the bracket”-thing? Great! My Twitter feed was full of predictions. (And no, I’m not being sarcastic for once, I promise.)

But, if we look at the matchups, and compare them with the stationary (league pooling) version, things get interesting.

Two of the matchups actually correspond to the stationary matchups. Anaheim (Q3) plays Winnipeg (Q14) and Tampa Bay (Q5) faces Detroit (Q12).

In the Vancouver vs Calcary we’re letting them off easy. Both teams are facing a poorer opponent they would be under league pooling. Vancouver (Q8) faces Calgary (Q16). Under league pooling the matchups would be Q8 vs Q9 and Q16 vs Q1.

In the Washington vs New York Islanders series it’s the same only less so, as Washington “should” be facing Q8 and Islanders Q7. However, the series really is Q9 (WSH) vs Q10 (NYI). So both teams are facing a poorer teams than under league pooling.

In the rest of the series teams are facing higher quality teams than they would under league pooling. We have New York Rangers (Q1) vs Pittsburgh (Q15), whereas under league pooling the pairings would be Q1 vs Q16 and Q15 vs Q2.

It gets more severe as we go on. Montreal vs Ottava is now Q2 vs Q13, instead of Q2 vs Q15 and Q13 vs Q4. In the St Louis vs Minnesota series we have Q4 playing Q11, whereas under league pooling we’d have Q4 vs Q13 and Q11 vs Q6.

Finally, poor Nashville and Chicago. They’re facing each other, despite being Q6 and Q7, respectively. Under league pooling Nashville would face Q11 and Chicago Q10.

In conclusion, out of 16 teams, 4 faced who they would under league pooling, and another 4 faced a weaker opponent than their quality would suggest. That means half of the teams had a more difficult matchup than they would under league pooling.

I’d love to hear the reasoning for this change. Other than the pretty bracket with pictures and arrows and nice little boxes you can fill out.


What’s wrong with having a hobby?

Finland, media and social media alike, has been buzzing the past days about an article by Urheilusanomat regarding the lack of exercise (or physical activity) by kids in Finland. Urheilusanomat got a preview on Liitu, a study about the exercise habits and levels of Finnish school kids, and the results were shocking. Check these out: (all info from the article)

– in a study covering 14 kindergartens, none of the 3-years old kids fulfilled the recommended level of activity. The recommendation? A whopping 1 hour per day of moderately taxing physical activity. That’s like, one hour of running around playing tag!

– in schools, aged 7-16, 1 out of 5 fulfills the recommendation of minimum of 1 hour per day of physical activity. And the trend is very much downward-sloping: for 5th graders 1/3 meet the criteria, 1/5 of 7th graders, and mere 1/10 of 9th graders.

– on the other hand, out of the same group, 95% spend more than recommended on “screen time”. That is, in front of the TV, computer, tablet and phone. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if time spend in front of a screen doing school related things is included or not, which is fairly relevant given how schools are more and more moving away from traditional books and towards multimedia.) Oh, and the recommendation: 2 hours per day everyday.

Why is this, then? Why aren’t the kids more active? 59% said it’s because they “can’t be bothered to go”. Other often-quoted reasons were lack of instruction, lack of time, and other hobbies.

I started thinking about this, and in the following I’m going to do something that I absolutely hate when discussing social issues. I’m going to tell you about me.

Personally, I’ve always liked the way sports and other hobbies have been kept separate of schools in Finland, as opposed to, for example, the American model. Why? Because that way one’s social circle isn’t limited to one thing: school. I had my school friends, the group I hung out with at school and often after school, too. But I also had my figure skating friends, and later my cheerleading friends. I knew that my friend T from school had her horse riding friends outside of school circles. K had football friends. L had violin lessons and friends in the music school in addition to us at school. Your friendships at school weren’t defined by your hobby.

And I liked that! Maybe more so because having grown up in the Helsinki metropolitan area I had pretty much the best opportunities to have different hobbies, as far as availability and access go. I was privileged by the simple fact that I live in a large city. But still, school was about school. And hanging out with friends. Not about what else I liked doing.

But the way sports were done in sports clubs also created its own set of problems. Clubs are focused on competing and on finding new talents. I was good enough in figure skating to be moved forward in the synchronized skating program (I preferred the team setting, more friends to hang out with). By the time I was 14 or so, I was practicing 6 times a week. Weekdays, weekends, after school, before school, sometimes even during school, like when I spent PE practicing the steps for our short program while everyone else was learning to skate backwards.

However, my focus at that time was in school work. I wanted to get into a good high school, and then go to university. Synchronized skating was never going to be my life ambition, it was something I did because it was fun. At 6 practice sessions in a week it wasn’t fun anymore.

So I quit.

At that time I was so done with the sport that I didn’t touch my skates for years.

In a 2012 study of 14-15 years old athletes the most important reason for doing sports was having fun and enjoying the sport, according to Outi Aarresola of KIHU (a Finnish research center for sports). In the Liitu study of 11-15 year old kids 28% had quit a club, and 64% of those kids would love to continue if possible. 85% said the reason for quitting was tiring of the sport.

I would have loved to continue. Not at the point where I finally decided to quit, at that point it was too late. Like the 85%, I was too done with it all. But had I, year or so earlier, had the opportunity to say “I can do once or twice a week, but no more” I would have kept on skating. I loved it! I still do! There’s no feeling comparable to the blade biting into the ice. And that moment when you hit the perfect glide where it almost feels like you’re flying on the ice? Magical. It’s a really nice feeling. I would have loved to keep on skating. Just not 6 times a week!

At that point, doing sports was such an integral part of my life, however, that I looked for something else to do. I had been doing some sort of physical activity since I was 4. It started at gym for kids, then at the age of 6 I picked up ballet. I loved it, and I was so proud when at 8 (which is the age limit) I already had the required two years of ballet under my belt and I could get the pointe shoes. I felt like a real ballerina! Slowly my focus shifted to skating.

So when I quit, I was already in the habit of doing something active regularly, an important determinant in how active you’re likely to be for the rest of your life. I picked up cheerleading, first competitive, then at sports games (yes, with the Helsinki IFK. I refuse to apologize for my love of them because, really, it’s just good taste.) where the time commitment was more reasonable.

After the less-than-athletic years of university life, almost three years ago I found myself graving for that activity that doing sports brings. Carrying on my tradition of only doing sports where you get to wear skirts, I chose tennis. And so for almost three years now I have, once a week and under the compassionate guidance of a professional coach, hit the ball into my own face. (Okay, I’ve only done that twice. And once I hit myself in the leg with my racket while serving. And one time I tripped over my own racket. The way I play, even tennis is a contact sport.)

That’s what we need to offer the kids. Not the tennis ball to the face because that actually hurts, but an opportunity to play a sport, be active, without the push towards competitive career. I understand that while this is doable in something like tennis, in team sports it is not so easy. We’d basically need two parallel structures. That’s where the schools could step up to the plate. Let the kids who just want to play basketball for fun play at school, maybe even against other schools, and then let those who want to do it more seriously play with the sports clubs. Let’s find a way kids can just play and have fun. Where they don’t have to be the best, or compete viciously against one another. Where the commitment is enough at once or twice a week. Where you don’t have to do sports, but you just get to play. As a hobby.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Last weekend I finally got around to watching The Last Gladiators, a documentary about the enforcers, “goons”, in ice hockey. The story follows that of Chris Nilan, and showcases the sometimes devastating price of being a “tough guy”. If you’re interested, and I really think you should be, the documentary is available on Netflix.

I’m not going to analyze the content, partly because it’s already been done so well: Jouni Nieminen wrote about the documentary for Helsingin Sanomat (unfortunately in Finnish, but scroll down for links for English coverage). But the documentary got me thinking. Fighting is one of those topics that pop up every season, at least once a season. And it’s one of those things that almost everyone who has an opinion feels strongly about, one way or the other. There’s sites and blogs promoting fighting, such as where you even get to vote on the winner of the fight. And there’s sites and blogs against fights, such as It’s Not Part Of The Game which tries to rid the game of fighting, arguing that, well, it’s not part of the game.

I have to insert a disclaimer here: While I’m the last person to be called “a flower-hat lady” (from the Finnish word “kukkahattutäti”, meaning a schoolmarmish Miss Judy goody two shoes) I am against fighting when it’s just for the sake of fighting. Because why would you fight? There’s no point!

And I can just hear the uproar… The arguments for fighting are seeded deep in hockey tradition. “Fighting helps the team win more; it motivates the team.” “Fighting cleans the game by policing out the dirty play.” The two most common arguments heard in favor of the fights. Too bad they’re not true.

How much are we fighting, then?

The lovely people at keep good statistics on fights in the National Hockey League. So let’s see how much fighting happens in the NHL. The following figures are based on the data from the 2000-2001 up to and including the current season, unless otherwise stated.

  • Were you to watch every game in a single season, you’d see, on average, 640 fights. (This average excludes the shortened 2012-13 and current season.)
  • On average, 39% of games in a season have at least one fight.
  • 132 games, on average, in a season, have more than one fight. That’s approximately 10% of the games. (Excluding both the 12-13 and current season.)
  • The average number of fights per game range from 0.35 (current season) to 0.65 (2001-2002). There seems to be a declining trend:

Fights in the NHL graph

* The current season, 2014-15, statistics are recorded at 231 games played.

Do fights win games?

In their study The effect of Home Advantage, Momentum, and Fighting on Winning in the National Hockey League (Journal of Sports Economics, 12, 5, 2011) Benjamin Leard and Joanne M. Doyle used data for fights in the 2007-2008 season. (Leard and Doyle used for their data, another fan-based site like The numbers are slightly different between the sites. counts fights where at least one player involved receives a fighting major. I couldn’t find a definition for a fight at During that season 41% of games had at least one fight taking place. Out of the total of 722 fights, almost half took place in the first period.

fights per period

This means, should this distribution between periods hold for other seasons as well and there’s really no reason to assume otherwise, that approximately 44% of fights happen in the first period. And around 70% of fights take place in the first two periods combined.

Leard and Doyle studied the effect of a won fight on the outcome of the game using game-level data. They acknowledged the possible endogeneity bias between fighting an game success as doing poorly in the game could trigger a fight. Of course, given the fact that only 25% of the fights took place after the second period, that doesn’t seem a very prominent reason for fighting.

To minimize the possible bias Leard and Doyle used only the games where there had been fights only in the first period. Turns out, there is “no evidence of the motivational effect of winning fights”. They also experimented with different slices of the data; using both first and second period fights made very little difference. Overall, they conclude, there is “no significant evidence, positive or negative, of winning fights on the likelihood of winning the game”. (Emphasis mine.)

So, fighting makes no difference to the outcome of the game. Why do it then? As The Last Gladiators made so plain, it’s hardly a healthy way to play hockey.

Does fighting clean up the game?

If fighting doesn’t help us win, then it must at the very least help us protect our players, right? If we put a known enforcer, a bad-ass fighter on the ice, the other team will think twice before landing a dirty hit on our superstar. Right?

Well, it doesn’t look like it. Adam Gretz at Regressing wrote about this a year ago. Going over two seasons worth of games he looked at hits that “resulted in a suspension, fine, or match penalty” and compared that with whether or not the team taking the hit had an enforcer in the lineup that night. Out of the 106 incidents, Gretz found that 52 of the teams did not have a fighter in the lineup. That means 54 teams did, and the hit still took place.

SkinnyFish (really? Okay.) over at Pension Plan Puppets studied the number of “non-obstruction penalties”, or “naughty behavior” as he calls it, drawn by a team with respect to fighting majors taken. His argument was, that a team that fights a lot would draw less penalties, that is, other teams would play cleaner hockey against them than against teams that don’t fight. He found out there’s no correlation between fights and the level of “naughtiness” that goes on on the ice. (Nice jab at Toronto in the graph, though.) Having a fighter present doesn’t influence the level of dirty play you get from the other team.

So we’re not winning more games with fights, nor can we use them as a deterrent to foul play. And I ask again: why bother?

Are fights untouchable?

I’m beginning to wonder, are fights an isolated aspect of hockey, something that isn’t affecting much anything, but also something that isn’t affected by much anything. Jac C. Heckelman and Andrew J. Yates, in their ingeniously titled study And a Hockey Game Broke Out: Crime and Punishment in the NHL (Economic Inquiry, Oct 2003, 41, 4), used the natural experiment of NHL exploring the possibilities of using two referees in 1999-2000 seasons to study how the number of referees effects both the number of penalties called and the number of rules infractions committed by players.

Borrowing from the economic theory of crime, they isolate two different mechanisms: the monitoring effect and the deterrent effect. Monitoring effect would simply mean that two referees catch more infractions than one, while the actual number of infractions is the same. Deterrent effect on the other hand suggests that the increased risk of getting caught keeps players from committing the infraction in the first place.

The theory suggests, that “when the number of referees is increased, there are differential effects on major and minor infractions. … For major infractions, there is only a reaction effect to the other teams committing fewer minor infractions (due to the other team’s own deterrent effect).”

85% of the total number of penalties were minor. And as was to be expected, a significant monitoring effect was found. Adding a second referee means more infractions are caught. However, no deterrent effect was found for minor, nor major, infractions. Fights aren’t the type of infractions one usually tries to hide, quite contrary, so the monitoring effect doesn’t apply to them. But there was no deterrent effect found either. What does affect them?

Heckelman and Yates argue that infractions are more “crimes of passion” than conscious decisions, and as such are born out of the heat of the game, which would account for the lack of deterrent effect. Either way, it doesn’t seem like fights are motivated by many the variables they studied: offensive and defensive prowess, relative physical size of the teams, power play track records of the teams to account for the costs of getting a penalty..? Only opponent shooting percentage was significant (positive effect), own team power play defense had a significant and negative effect, presence of goons in teams was significant and positive, as was the age difference (teams with relatively older players fought more), number of times the own team had been shorthanded in the past 15 games had a positive and significant effect (implies a track record of rough game). Looking at the results, and besides that fact that if you put fighters on the ice, they’re going to fight, none of the above really explains fighting.

It won’t clean up the game. It won’t help you win more games.

So why fight?

Play off or play on?

Playoffs. Love them or hate them, they sure are entertaining. Which makes you think, the more the better, right?

Talking about playoffs when the regular season is barely underway would seem ridiculous, if it wasn’t for a piece of news that surfaced few weeks back here in Finland: the Finnish league is looking into expanding the playoffs in hockey. After all, the league itself is expanding next year. So it only makes sense.

More teams making playoffs, or at least staying in the run for longer, can only be a good thing, right? It’s more exciting so people tune in more and the game gets a boost in fan demand. That is the argument presented by the league, as expressed by the Finnish league’s board chairman Vesa Puttonen. Everybody wins, right?


Major League Baseball and the -69 and -95 playoff expansions

In his 2009 paper The impact of post-season restructuring on the competitive balance and fan demand in Major League Baseball (Journal of Sports Economics, 11, 136-156) Young Hoon Lee studied the playoff uncertainty and its link to attendance and found empirical evidence that the post-season restructurings of -69 and -95 improved the playoff uncertainty and had positive effects on fan demand. This seems to confirm the expectations of the Finnish hockey league. However…

What happened in MLB in the 1969 and 1995 was, that due to league expansions the old playoff system was no longer sufficient. In -69 both leagues (NL and AL) had 12 teams each. Before -69 the playoffs were basically just the championship series, only the winners of each league had a post-season. After -69, a second round was added to the playoffs, resulting in 2 teams our of 12 making the playoffs in each league, 4 out of 24 in total.

A similar expansion took place in 1995. Due to larger number of teams, another round of playoffs was added. Now 4 teams out of 14 in each league made the playoffs, a total of 8 out of 28 teams.

There’s expansion and there’s “expansion”

The key thing is to look at the number of teams making the post-season out of all possible. After the first structural expansion, 4 out of 24 teams had a post-season in baseball. That’s 17%. After the third round was added, the percentage goes up, to 29%.

Right now, before the proposed expansion, the Finnish hockey league has 71% of its teams making the playoffs. Even with the added team next season, we’d still have 67% of the teams playing for the championship after the regular season.

I highly doubt the fan demand is linear in this regard. Going from 17% to 29% making the playoffs may have had significant impact on fan demand. Going up from 71%? I’m doubtful.

The Swedish study in equal opportunity

Has anyone looked at the Swedish hockey league? They introduced the “pity playoffs”, the “pre-round” for last season*. What happened there? How did the demand react? ‘Cause they’re really getting all in with the playoffs, almost literally: 83% of the teams made playoffs last season. The league expansion to 14 teams isn’t going to bring the percentage down much, only to par with Finland: 71%.

The North American leagues are much more ruthless. Both NHL and NBA qualify slightly over half of their teams to post-season, with 53% both. NFL has probably the most confusing season schedule I’ve ever seen, but they mean serious business with the post-season: 38% of teams get a chance to go all the way to championship.

And what about baseball? It’s grown since we last spoke of it, the league now consists of 30 teams. Still only 10 make the post-season. That’s 33%.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the KHL? 16 out of 28 teams. That’s 57%.

The percentages of teams making the playoffs in different leagues:

Playoff teams

Pointless games, at the beginning and the end

What would it mean, in reality, if we let more teams into the playoffs? It would mean weaker, lower quality teams getting a change at upsetting the, at least according to a lengthy regular season, stronger teams. I borrowed from a study The “Second” Season: The Effects of Playoff Tournaments on Competitive Balance Outcomes in the NHL and NBA by Neil Longley and Nelson J. Lacey (Journal of Sports Economics, 13, 5, 2012) and calculated the probabilities of each seed winning three rounds of playoffs. Like them, I used the average winning percentages for each seed over several seasons. Unlike them, I didn’t take into consideration the home advantage. I also assumed the “pity playoffs” are played as best-out-of-7, to simplify calculations.

Using the average winning percentage of each seed over 11 seasons (2003-04 to 2013-14) in the Finnish hockey league, I calculated the probability of each seed winning the championship, when weighted by the probability of each possible match-up.

The first seed, the team winning the regular season, wins the championship with 38,6% probability. The 10th placed team has a probability of 1,2%. Here’s the whole list:

Seed Prob.
1 38.6
2 25.4
3 23.0
4 22.0
5 17.7
6 14.2
7 5.3
8 2.8
9 2.1
10 1.2

Why include teams with very small probabilities of actually winning the championship? Besides, the extra round for seed 7 through 10 is what really diminishes their chances. So why increase their number? Are match-ups between the first and 10th placed (40% probability of that happening) really interesting to anyone, when the probability of the regular season winner winning is 72,1%? Against the 8th placed team seed 1 would have a winning probability of 67,2%. I’d prefer to go to the second game, if you ask me.

But because it’s not all math and probabilities, things happen. Weaker teams win. That’s why playoffs are so exciting. Longley and Lacey found, in their study, that the playoffs in the NHL had “considerable reranking effects” when compared to the regular season standings. Which begs to question: isn’t the whole point finding out who’s the best?

While increased playoff uncertainty may increase fan demand, it’s not always so straightforward. In their study “Playoff Uncertainty and Pennant Races” (Journal of Sports Economics, 12, 5, 2011) Anthony C. Krautmann et al. used monthly attendance data from MLB for the 1957-2006 period to better capture the effect increased playoff uncertainty would have on fan demand. They found that “the only month in which attendance is affected by [playoff uncertainty] is the month of September”, that is, right at the end of the regular season.

If it takes, on average, 1,3 points per game to make the playoffs in the Finnish hockey league (using the same data as before), can we really afford to bring that any lower? To make more early-season games relatively insignificant and thus more uninteresting to fans?

Can we really?


* The seeds through 7 to 10 play a round, usually best-out-of-3 or 5, to determine which two teams play against seeds 1 and 2.

Edit: Edited to add graphics on the number of teams making the post-season in each league at the reguest of my good friend and self-appointed social media consultant H, who doesn’t like to read too many numbers in a row. -Nov 10, 2014